If you are finding that your relationship has more down moments than up ones, that anything you say seems to provoke your partner, or that things have gone from happy to ho-hum, it may be time to give your relationship a boost. Quite possibly you never had the opportunity to develop a realistic picture of what it takes to make a marriage or partnership work. If you think it should be all romance and roses, or that your partner should always want what you want, you are bound to be disappointed. And sometimes, just the ability to really talk with your partner disappears along with the novelty of first getting to know each other.
The reality is that good relationships require effort, investment and follow through. It’s not that basic partnership skills are either esoteric or difficult to understand. More often, people lack opportunities to learn relationship skills or have little guidance on how to implement them. When our parents didn’t really get along or perhaps didn’t even stay together, or we don’t want to emulate their relationship, we may have turned elsewhere for inspiration but then received a distorted and incomplete picture of what makes a relationship work. If we looked to friends’ parents for cues, we only saw a small fraction of their interactions. If television sitcoms provided our role models for marriage, with problems revealed, rehashed and resolved within twenty-six minutes, we doubtless developed a skewed sense of what it takes to make a marriage or partnership flourish. Below are some specific suggestions to help improve your relationship.
Express appreciation of your partner in many ways, as often as you can. This may be a stretch if you are feeling irritated, angry or distant, but look for the areas that you aren’t at odds about, and acknowledge those. Focusing on resentments and collecting more items to justify your anger is going to increase your negative feelings. You may have a really good case, but you will also have a really unhappy relationship.If you are having trouble thinking of what you appreciate about your partner, consider what your relationship gives to you that did not have when you were single. How have you grown in this relationship? Remember the early days of your relationship and what you really liked about your partner then. Chances are, those qualities are still there, although they may be obscured by disagreements or life events. Use words, gestures, touch and actions to acknowledge your partner in positive ways. Think of the things you know your partner likes to be appreciated for, and pay special attention to those. And, when your partner acknowledges you, make sure to say thank you. I hear aggrieved partners in therapy saying far too often ”I don’t think she ever notices when I open the door for her or take out the dog, or clean up the sink, or buy her favorite kind of tomato sauce.”
Resolve your differences in an effective, non-damaging way. Remember that this is a partnership – you are both on the same side. Disagreements come up, and it’s important to resolve them when possible. Sometimes this means compromise. However, most couples have a few areas where they cannot agree or come to any kind of compromise. In many situations, there are no “right” or “wrong” positions, but simply differing viewpoints. However, it is ok to agree to disagree. Where some kind of agreement is required, then negotiation is necessary and achieving some kind of resolution is important, although neither one of you is likely to get 100% of what you want. There are many situations where it is more a matter of principle – that one partner doesn’t want to “give in.” As one colleague says succinctly “Would you rather be right or be married?”
Speak up about what you want and need. The etiquette of good communication is simple: say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t be mean when you say it. Before speaking up, ask your partner if he or she is available to hear you. If your partner is absorbed in a magazine and you simply start talking, your words, no matter how eloquently spoken, are likely to be unheard and felt as intrusive. When speaking, if you use “I” statements and feeling words, and are specific about what you need or want, you are more likely to get at least some of what you are asking for. Blaming and criticizing your partner are indirect and hurtful ways of expressing needs. How much differently do you think your partner will respond to “You never call me during the day from work” than to “I would really like it if you would give me a call from work tomorrow. I miss talking with you during the day.”
When your partner is talking to you, LISTEN! Don’t interrupt, roll your eyes, mutter under your breath, or gaze off into the distance. Be respectful and attentive. Stone-walling or giving a cold shoulder are forms of communicating: They say: I don’t want to hear what you say, I don’t care what you think, and I’m not going to make any effort to try and listen. Is that the message you want to give your mate? If you aren’t available to listen, say so, rather than pretending to be available when you are not. If you don’t agree with your partner, wait your turn to talk about your view. Probably the biggest gripe partners of both genders have about their relationships is not feeling understood. Paraphrasing St. Francis of Assissi, seek not to be understood, but to understand. How can you understand if you don’t even listen? Show you are listening by making eye contact, nodding, and asking questions, repeating back what you heard your partner say and asking clarifying questions. Your mate will be more likely to offer you the same courtesy.
When you are angry, breathe, take a time out, and get rational before talking. Words blurted out in anger are often regretted. The feelings are valid; the expression of those feelings needs to be constructive, not undermining, hurtful and destructive. Mishandled anger can be very damaging to a partnership. Many of us never learned reliable communication skills, much less how to argue in ways that express feelings directly but without venom. We are often angry about something our partner has said or done, but if anger gets expressed viciously, it becomes more global. The issues get muddied, and the battle becomes about who is the better person, not about whatever the original concern was. As in verbalizing other needs, make sure your partner is available to listen and use I statements to talk about your feelings, not about why the other person is wrong.
Plan a date night every week. Schedule a consistent time each week just for the two of you to do something fun. Take turns deciding what to do. This is not just a time to hang out at home and see what’s new on TV. But it doesn’t need to be costly, either. It can be taking a leisurely walk in a new part of town or going out to watch the sunset and stopping for tea. It can be an evening spent at home, but one that has been choreographed to create something special. If a weekend afternoon is better than an evening, schedule it for then. If your schedules don’t allow for a consistent time each week, then plan ahead and get times on your calendars well in advance. What’s important is that this is an opportunity to enjoy each other’s company and do something pleasurable that enhances your relationship. Fun is the glue that keeps our relationships alive and healthy.
For help with issues involving your relationship, please contact Avis Rumney at (415) 602-1403 or AvisRumney@me.com.